The failure of state lawmakers to do anything about the surging drug crisis is one of the worst policy face-plants I’ve seen in local politics going back 30 years.
Rarely is the gap so wide between the high stakes of an issue — hundreds of state residents now dying monthly of overdoses — and the low results. Which is that the state Legislature adjourned for the year Sunday after deciding to do nothing about it.
“Decided” is the wrong word, because really what happened was the opposite of decision-making. Democrats who control the state House, Senate and the governor’s office just couldn’t make up their minds how to approach the drug issue. So they punted.
Said state House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, after the House she runs had torpedoed a compromise bill her own party had crafted Sunday night: “I’m flummoxed, I’m flummoxed.”
Imagine how state residents feel.
The political system had a year to figure out how hard or soft to go on drugs, along with what treatment plans to put in place. The part about criminal sanctions is tricky and controversial. The part about treatment is not.
Both the state Senate and state House passed bills that, in the big picture, weren’t wildly different. The Senate said drug possession would be a gross misdemeanor, the House wanted it to be a misdemeanor. Both penalties are down from the previous felony level, which was thrown out by the state Supreme Court in 2021.
But both bills spent most of their focus and money on the treatment side of this issue anyway — on trying to divert drug users away from jail, and creating treatment programs to get them some substance abuse help.
Led by Seattle’s delegation, which for the most part wants to decriminalize hard drugs completely, 25% of state House Democrats voted no on their own party’s compromise bill. And so it failed.
There are two things most galling about this — and neither has to do with the debate about whether drugs should be a crime.
The first is that drug treatment, the part everybody supposedly agrees on and is so desperately needed? A ton of that got thrown out with the rest of the bill.
Discarded were grants for 23-hour drug crisis relief centers; funding for mobile methadone units; money for the alternatives to arrest and jail program; a program to supply youth workers with the lifesaving overdose reversal medication naloxone; the funding of “health engagement hubs” where drug users could get counseling and other help; and so on.
All the treatment that was funded in Senate Bill 5536 goes away. This will almost certainly cost lives, if it isn’t reversed.
To give a sense of the urgent stakes, and how it contrasts with the lackadaisical work in Olympia: In the time after the state House passed its bill on April 11 and the various parties knew they had a disagreement and then dithered until the close of the session April 23, 55 more people died of overdoses in King County alone.
Four months, or nearly 400 King County overdose deaths ago, I wrote: “Wherever one stands on this — from lock ‘em up on the right, to hand them needles on the left — what’s clearly lacking is the treatment and support part. … No approach is going to work if there’s no treatment to go to.”
So why not at least pass the treatment parts? They waited to vote on the bill until the final moments of the session, then predictably ran out of time for any fixes. (That they then stood and applauded themselves for adjourning was a real chef’s kiss to the public.)
The other head-shaking thing, which doesn’t bode well going ahead, is that Democrats blamed Republicans for what was their own lack of leadership and resolve.
“Not one single Republican helped on this so that we will not decriminalize drugs,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.
“Their failure to provide any votes for this bill is going to result in methamphetamines, fentanyl and heroin … possession of those drugs being legalized across the state of Washington,” House Speaker Jinkins said of Republicans.
Sorry, but no. Regular readers know I am fine castigating Republicans for all manner of political misdeeds. But Democrats have an 18-seat majority in the state House, a nine-seat majority in the state Senate, and the governorship. There’s no filibuster here. Local Republicans have been beaten down by voters so badly they have close to zero governing clout left.
You can’t point at the group that’s on life support and say “they made us fail.”
State Rep J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, called it right when he said that Democrats “got caught up in an unfortunate ideological conflict and didn’t have a way out of it.”
Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah, who is a Democrat, told me: “I don’t know that I’ve seen a party put a bill on the bar to be voted on, and then have it lose and have no plan for what to do after that. I think our party’s main plan was to blame the Republicans and see if that sticks.”
Just embarrassing. This wasn’t some show vote. It was the most consequential policy debate of the year.
I feel bad now for the city and town mayors, who are struggling to get a grip on this scourge. And for the overwhelmed front-line paramedics and substance abuse counselors, who will stay overwhelmed. But mostly for the people out there in the throes of addiction, and even more so their families, who are desperately looking for some answers, for any bit of relief or help their government might provide.
You all deserve much better than this.
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